Letting Go of Teen Perfectionism
Updated: Aug 17
What happens when a high-achieving teen’s drive and dedication crosses over into perfectionism? Recent research confirms that teen perfectionism is on the rise, and it’s linked to increasing levels of anxiety and depression. One study found that nearly a third of children develop “maladaptive perfectionism” by the time they reach adolescence. Here, we identify common signs, risk factors, and steps parents can take when teens’ fear of failure goes too far. Signs of Perfectionism Perfectionist teens tend to share similar tendencies. Do you notice any of the following tendencies?
Avoid taking risks, trying new things, or doing anything they’re not already good at
Procrastinate, avoid schoolwork, or are anxiously indecisive
Fixate on flawlessness, whether in their appearance, schoolwork, or performance
Start over repeatedly and often express self-criticism and frustration
Either blow up or shut down emotionally when they make a mistake
Insist on retaking tests or practicing until their performance is flawless
Over-emphasize the judgments of others and take criticism personally
Base their sense of self-worth on what they do – their performance and achievements – rather than who they are
Most teens occasionally exhibit one or two of these behaviors, but a teen that consistently struggles with these tendencies may need some support in understanding and addressing their perfectionism. Teens At Higher Risk Any teen can fall into the trap of perfectionism, but research shows the following teens tend to be more perfectionistic than their peers: Girls Some research indicates that girls are more prone to perfectionism because they are socialized to be people pleasers. Pressure to be “good” and “nice” teaches girls to be more focused on the opinions of others. They may base their sense of self-worth on how kind, smart, or pretty they think they are perceived to be. Gifted Teens Teens who are academically, musically, or athletically gifted are often surrounded by a competitive culture in which their grades, scores, or performance are constantly evaluated. They may face pressure to succeed from parents, coaches, and teachers, leading them to place pressure on themselves. Gifted teens may have less experience with failure, making it harder for them to keep things in perspective. Teens With Perfectionist Parents Perfectionist traits are heritable, so Type A parents often notice their own perfectionism reflected in their children. Teens who see their parents holding themselves to unreachable standards learn that failure is not an option, even if their parents aren’t directly pressuring them to be perfect. How to Help Parents can help reshape their perfectionist teen’s unrealistic expectations with these four strategies:
Understand the cycle of perfectionism. Help your teen understand that unreachable standards cause their feelings of failure, not their inability to achieve those standards. According to Paras Ramani, MFTI of the Teen Therapy Center of Silicon Valley, perfectionist attitudes can trigger a harmful cycle that begins with teens setting unrealistic goals which then lead to failure in achieving impossible goals, reduced productivity, self-criticism and low self-esteem. Setting realistic goals can break this cycle.
Talk about risks and rewards. Perfectionist teens tend to limit themselves to activities that feel safe. Parents can help them reflect on opportunities by asking questions like, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” “What’s the best thing that could happen?” and “What would you like to get out of the experience even if it doesn’t go the way you planned?” Talking through their fears helps teens develop skills for mindfully assessing situations and recognizing the rewards in trying something new or different.
Identify their values. Thinking about what matters most can help teens break the cycle of perfectionism, clarify their goals, and set more individualized expectations. Growth only happens when we allow ourselves to make mistakes, and big benefits usually come only after we’ve taken on a challenge. The book Brave, Not Perfect by Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani is full of powerful reminders that courage matters more than perfection.
Find ways to embrace imperfection as a family. Perfectionist teens often appear calm and collected while internally experiencing paralyzing anxiety and self-doubt. Parents can help release some of the pressure by giving teens time to just be kids. One family we know hosts “bad art parties.” At these gatherings, everyone makes a piece of art and has to do something to mess it up when they find themselves trying to make it perfect. Perfectionist teens need practice relaxing their standards and making mistakes.
As Clinical Psychologist Tom Nehmy says, "Life is never going to be perfect, and we don't want it to be – a perfect life would lack challenge, passion, richness and meaning.” Above all, keep reminding your teen that they have nothing to prove, and they are loved and valued just as they are. With your support, they can learn to let go of perfectionism and live a life that is big, brave, and perfectly imperfect.
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